What’s the Difference Between “Afflict” vs. “Inflict”?

Chances are that, during times of … let’s say biological outbreak, you’re bound to hear the words afflicted, affliction, and inflict or inflicted used a lot—and to varying degrees of accuracy.

It’s OK, this is normal: the English language is particularly confusing when it comes to usage of words that share a similar element. In this case, it’s –flict, ultimately based on the Latin verb flīgere, meaning “to strike”

When we use these words, we’re often talking about various forms of pain or distress, but there are plenty of figurative uses for them as well—both of which we’ve got examples for below.

What does it mean to be afflicted?

The word afflict is a verb that means “to distress with mental or bodily pain, or to trouble greatly or grievously,” and it’s generally used with an object, especially in plural forms or with collective nouns. For instance, The disease afflicted already vulnerable populations.

This word is also often used as a verb in the passive voice, especially when the subject is singular. For example, you could say that Joey is afflicted with chronic pain in his knees, or Jane has been afflicted with general anxiety for a long time now.

The noun form of afflict is affliction. So, you could say, to draw on the above examples, Joey’s affliction is giving him horrible knee pain, or Jane’s affliction with anxiety has been present for years.

The word afflict is recorded as early as 1350–1400. It comes from the Latin afflictus, meaning “distressed,” the past participle of afflīgere, meaning “to cast down.” The af– in this verb is a form of the Latin preposition ad, meaning “to, towards.”

What does inflict mean?

Now, inflict is a verb, also used with an object, that means “to impose as something that must be borne or suffered” or “to deal or deliver, as a blow.” It is also commonly used in the passive voice, and often with on or upon.

For instance, you could say that The teacher inflicts consequences upon the classroom when the students get rowdy and don’t listen, or We will not inflict damage on the enemy forces until provoked.

Inflict is also commonly used to mean “impose,” and that’s imposition of anything really, not just physical pain … as in She didn’t want him inflicting his beliefs on her.

The noun form of inflict is infliction, and commonly connotes suffering of some kind, e.g., The patient was recovering from the infliction of mental distress.

Inflict is recorded later than afflict, dated to around 1520–30. Its origin is similar, though, coming from the Latin inflīctus, meaning “distressed,” the past participle form of afflīgere, meaning “to cast down.”

What’s the difference between afflict and inflict?

As you can see from above, correctly using afflict and infliction can feel like an affliction.

One of the best ways to distinguish these words is by trying to substitute one for the other in a sentence. Which verb form, afflicted or inflicted, fills in the blank: The principal  ____ punishment on the students. (Sorry, kids)

“The principal afflicted punishment on the students”? Nope. It’s “the principal inflicted punishment on the students.”

Here’s a rule to remember:

  • The object of inflict is the form of pain or distress, such as an injury.
  • The object of afflict is the person or thing that is suffering.

Let’s try another. Which verb form, is afflicted or inflicted with, fills in the blank: The grandfather was ___ with arthritis. (Sorry, Pops.)

“The grandfather is afflicted with arthritis.” That’s right! To say the “grandfather is inflicted with arthritis” means that a person imposed arthritis on Pops, which isn’t how arthritis works.

Now, inflict and afflict get more nuanced than this, but we will spare you the … infliction of any more grammatical pains for now.

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